The Liberal Fetish For Elections

The Economist cover this week shows a man whose face is painted with the colors of the Egyptian flag under the words “Egypt’s Tragedy.” Writing that while  Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood he represented “politics (as) subsidiary to religion, and are downright hostile to the attitudes towards women and minorities that pervade the Islamist movement,” the magazine worries that their ouster “sets a dreadful precedent for the region.”

Many dictators have taken power through the ballot box yet few have given up power that way. Both the Greeks and the Romans elected leaders who later became tyrants and seized power.  Two millennia later both Hitler and Benito Mussolini were democratically elected to their nation’s highest offices. Fidel Castro used the power of his rebel army to guarantee his election as Prime Minister of Cuba in 1959. More recently the Iranian regime took power in elections after the fall of the Shah in 1979, and haven’t had a free and open election since. Hugo Chavez. Hamas in Gaza. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Dictators throughout history and around the world have found using elections to gain power is much easier than taking power by force.

Yet the list of dictatorships that lost an election and ceded power as a result is quite short. There surely must be one, but I can’t think of any. The ruling South African National party lost the 1994 election in which Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, but while the National Party excluded blacks from the vote, it was still a Democratic regime. The revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 from East Germany to the Soviet Union came about after massive protests, and the elections of Lech Walesa and Vaclev Havel and other opposition leaders and parties in the former Soviet Bloc resulted from these protests not through constitutional elections. When dictatorial regimes take power, they mean to keep it, and one of the first things they do is rig the Law to insure their place at the top of society in perpetuity.

So why do liberals hold elections in such high regard, resulting in farcical acts such as former president Jimmy Carter certifying the election of Hamas in Gaza or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela? One man one vote is a pervasive ideal that cuts across ideologies and forms of government. It is the start of the Republican form, and is found in everything from pure Democracy (think Switzerland), Socialism, Communism and Anarchism. Because casting a vote ideally represents an individual’s free will, the resulting form of government is thereby a legitimate expression of the voter’s intent. But history is replete with examples proving  such an ideal is a complete fallacy. Voters may believe they are electing a protector of democracy only to see him become a tyrant after taking power. Or voters may use the opportunity to choose a non-democratic regime as has happened in Iran and Gaza.

What an election can do though is confer the mantle of legitimacy upon a dictatorship, and in Marxist philosophy such a dictatorship (by the proletariat) is necessary to reach the higher stages of communist development. Could this explain the progressive movement’s obsession with ballots? Honestly I’d be surprised if progressives thought that far ahead so other reasons must underlay the obsession.

Having an election does not guarantee a country is a liberal democracy. Such a belief that it does is yet another example of liberal magical thinking that confuses actions and results. An election cannot guarantee a functioning democracy just as a single battle cannot determine the outcome of a war. Democracy only has a long history on the European continent, and even there it is only within the last 50 years that democratic institutions have developed roots that can withstand the changes wrought when one regime leaves power and another replaces it. Even there a democratic Germany had to be restored through force of arms, Spain has only become democratic within the past 30 years, and the continent itself cannot decide how to govern itself at all levels, from the local through national to the international (the EU is far from being the pinnacle of Democracy).

Instead Democracy is a long process and casting ballots in an election has more symbol than substance. A free and fair election is meaningful only when institutions exist to support the results such as a free press, an independent judiciary and a military firmly under civilian authority. It is much more difficult to create these institutions from scratch than it is to throw an election without them. The American Occupation authorities in post-war Japan found this out the hard way when it allowed local and national elections in the aftermath of the war and watched the well-organized (and Soviet provisioned) Communist Party win them. Instead of ceding Japan to the Soviets, it annulled the elections and focused on creating the conditions necessary for democracy to eventually take root and Japan is better off today than it would have been otherwise. The US exercised a degree of authoritarian control in Japan and to a lesser extent in post-war West Germany that would be difficult to replicate in today’s politically correct times where “all cultures are equal” including those without any understanding of or foundation in Democracy.

Egypt’s democratic history is scant, it’s institutions non-existent. Any election Egypt holds is not going to usher in a democracy, it will instead legitimize and autocracy. Is a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship better for Egypt and the world than a military one? It is difficult to judge, but there are more instances of the army returning to their barracks and ceding power to civilian authority than there are of clerics returning to the mosques and doing the same. A magazine as venerable as The Economist should know this more than anyone.

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19 Comments

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  10. Steve D:

    Elections are an effect, not a cause of democracy.

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